Chef Teddy Diggs’ self-proclaimed joy and struggle is creating personal, inventive dishes for “the summer people” with straightforward tastes who crave the familiar season after season after season ... Diggs took over as chef of the locally renowned Art Cliff Diner on the New England vacation enclave of Martha’s Vineyard—renowned for its blue bloods onshore and the bluefish offshore—in early spring 2013. The Diner’s daily blackboard menu acts as a creative outlet and helps Diggs walk the razor’s edge divide between the traditional island fare that stalwart patrons of The Diner expect and the adroit and artful food that is his pride and joy.
Katama Bay Oyster and Smoked Bluefish Chowda
Chef Teddy Diggs of The Art Cliff Dinner
Bluefish Belly Crudo with Smoked Sea Salt, Lemon, and Arugala
Seared Bluefish, Roasted Radishes, Tapenade, and Carrot-Yogurt Sauce
Chef Chris Fischer (right) and team of The Beach Plum Restaurant
Making a concerted effort to mold the 70-year-old isle-institution into an extension of himself, Diggs, who for years worked in fine-dining in the Washington, DC area and New York City with chefs such as Barton Seaver and Fabio Trabocchi, is changing island tastes. For his take on the integral New England clam chowder, Diggs slyly swaps the clams for oysters and bacon for bluefish. The transition is seamless and the results, superlative. Key to this technique-driven interpretation is Diggs’ handling of the temperamental and taken-for-granted bluefish. “I buy my fish from the fishermen who catch it,” says Diggs. “So, I have a great relationship with the process from hook to plate. I love bluefish. In the summertime it’s everywhere on Martha’s Vineyard. Ironically, it has yet to really become part of Vineyard menus. It’s crazy.” These crazy menus are reflective of New Englanders’ attitudes toward the common, misunderstood bluefish.
Its absence from most menus is in large part due to misconceptions about flavor and texture spawned by mishandling. “The most important note about bluefish is its time out of the water,” Diggs says. “It has such a high oil content that becomes more assertive as time passes. Most fish benefit from resting for 2 to 3 days after catch due to the process of rigor-mortise, but bluefish should be cooked or smoked within a day or so.”
According to Diggs, bleeding the bluefish is also a crucial step in the hook-to-plate process. “It’s very important for the fisherman to bleed the fish as it comes out of the water. Make a slit behind the gills, reach into the cavity, and remove as much as possible. It’s best to remove the heart as well, and then rinse the fish in the ocean.” Diggs gets his bluefish brined in salt, brown sugar, bourbon, lemon, and water. For his Katama Bay Oyster and Smoked Bluefish Chowda, Diggs smokes the freshly hooked, bled, eviscerated, rinsed, and brined bluefish with a mix of mostly oak, but also cherry and applewood chips, for eight hours. Sometimes he’ll smoke the bluefish with hay, if he’s making pâté, for example. “If I’m using the bluefish for a fresh preparation, I clean it and then brine it in sea water.”
Size matters. Diggs explains, “I prefer smaller bluefish for a few reasons. They’re a bit milder in flavor because they have smaller, less developed bloodlines. They also have fewer toxins (mercury, PCBs) that are common in fish with high oil content. Friends and fisherman know to put the smaller fish aside for me. I make perfect filets and then use all the trim, bellies, cheeks, and some bloodline for pâté.”
Native Vineyardite, Chef Chris Fischer of the The Beach Plum Inn & Food in Menemsha, has a few tips for catching bluefish that he gleaned from his father. “Bluefish are fierce eaters and will hit almost anything that has a hook on it. I recommend using the worst lure in your tackle box to attract blues because their teeth are so sharp they easily snap fishing lines. Once the fish are landed, be careful of the teeth. Always have needle-nose pliers to remove the hook, and don't put your hand anywhere near the fish's mouth. I like to hit them over the head with a beer bottle or hammer to stun them. Then immediately gut them, rinse well, and pack in ice.” In addition to the warning about the aggressive nature of the bluefish and its extremely sharp teeth, Fischer offers, “bluefish is best eaten the same day. I would never eat or serve bluefish that was landed more than a day earlier.”
Fischer serves bluefish in a variety of new and original ways on his nightly menus, which rarely include dishes with more than five ingredients on the plate. His delicate yet rich Bluefish Belly Crudo shares space with sea salt, olive oil, arugula, and lemon juice. Seared Bluefish with Carrot-Yogurt and Niçoise Olive Purées and Radishes brings the fish to life in a way most New Englanders have never tasted or even thought possible.
For all the endless hunting of new and interesting ingredients to feature on menus, on Martha’s Vienyard, chefs are doing it with ease, by reaching out to an old friend and treating it right. So if you ever find yourself on a destination New England island, remember your hook, beware of sharp teeth, and, by all means, bleed your bluefish.